Bee health experts to converge on Charleston

The Charleston Area Beekeepers Association trained 50 new beekeepers earlier this year. Training included two full days of classroom instruction, followed by a test, and about an hour of field work (seen here).

One more sign that the Charleston area is becoming a hub of beekeeping is evidenced by what will take place later this week.

For the first time ever, the South Carolina Beekeepers Association will hold its annual summer conference, titled “Health of Honeybees,” in the Lowcountry.

The conference will delve into subjects that have been hot health topics in recent years, including genetically modified foods, healthier ways to control pests and the incredible bugs that are responsible for the lion’s share of healthy fruits, vegetables and nuts produced in the nation and world.

Beginners, novices and experts in beekeeping from across the Palmetto State, Georgia and North Carolina will converge on Trident Technical College from Thursday to Saturday for an array of talks, vendors and products.

Among the events is a free, two-hour beginner beekeeping class starting at 2 p.m. Thursday in Trident’s Building 920.

Association president and Mount Pleasant resident Larry Haigh says the class is a special opportunity for locals who are interested in getting a colony to learn a quick overview of beekeeping.

“The demand is out there,” says Haigh.

He noted that in recent years the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association and Charleston Community Bee Gardens groups have trained about 100 new beekeepers annually at weekend-long workshops in January and February. Blue Pearl Farms in McClellanville also offers regular workshops in the fall and winter.

Meanwhile, the Charleston-based nonprofit, The Bee Cause, has been working to place hives in hundreds of schools locally and nationally, educating children and school staff about the honeybee.

Local leadership and likewise growing interest led the S.C. Beekeepers Association to rewrite bylaws that now require the conferences to move around the state. Historically, they had been consistently held at Clemson University in the Upstate.

That level of energy and interest in local beekeeping didn’t exist a decade ago when many Americans were shocked into caring about the humble honeybee, responsible for pollinating most of our fruits, vegetables and flowers grown on industrialized farms.

In November 2006, the term “colony collapse disorder” was coined for mysterious, massive die-offs of colonies managed by commercial beekeepers, and bees were suddenly the subject national news reports and stories.

Now eclipsed by the terrorist attacks, shootings and the presidential campaign, the honeybee story is still unfolding.

Since 2006, the Agriculture Department reports that more than 10 million beehives have been lost (more than twice the normal rate) and the federal government has responded in a series of way to help avert a possible food crisis involving the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, as well as other pollinators.

In 2009, the department’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service started issuing national surveys documenting bee losses, causes and emerging threats. The surveys break honey bee colonies into two categories, beekeepers with five or more colonies and those with less, often considered to be “hobbyists.”

The latest report, released last month, reported an 8 percent drop in colonies (of those with five or more hives), at 2.59 million, and that the nonnative varroa mite, was the “leading stressor.”

In June 2014, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force, an interagency body that released its national “Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” a year later.

And last month, the Obama Administration released the “Pollinator Partnership Action Plan,” outlining an array of efforts to improve opportunities for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, including restoring or enhancing seven million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

While federal efforts are oriented toward the big picture, Charleston serves as a microcosm of what can happen at the grassroots.

The small-scale beekeepers and hobbyists are spreading into neighborhoods across the counties of Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester.

For the record, I’m among them and have been witness to a lot of the folks who bring a considerable amount of expertise and intelligence to managing local honeybee populations and serving as mentors and advisers to new beekeepers.

Among them are business people, including James Craig of Striped Pig Distillery of North Charleston and Tom Knaust of Queen & Comb on Johns Island, who also often respond to calls to catch bee swarms.

While I’d like to think that Mother Nature does a great job managing herself, the job we’ve done to her and her pollinators, both native and introduced, requires more work on our part.

We’ve brought in challenging pests for bees, including the varroa mite (Asia), small hive beetle (Africa) and the lesser wax moth (Europe). Many of us spray pesticides, often indiscriminately, that kill insects, both bad and good. And we use bees like an industrial commodity, trucking them all over kingdom come to pollinate crops in monoculture farms, many containing genetically modified plants that have poisons called neonicotinoids bred into them.

Haigh says those array of threats, particularly the pests and pesticides, are why hives must be managed.

“If you get bees and decide to forget about them, you’re going to lose them,” he says.

But a new beekeeper also needs to know more than most initially imagine and that’s where monthly meetings of the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association (9-11 a.m. on the second Saturday at MUSC’s Gazes Auditorium) and the group’s mentors come to help.

Yet I’ve learned that bees, like anything in nature, don’t behave by the book and every beekeeper seems to have a different take on how to manage bees and their behavior.

“It’s not Entomology 101,” says Haigh, “it’s beekeeping.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.